On the first passuk in Parshat B’har, Rashi quotes the very famous question posed by Toras Kohanim:
Mai inyan Shmitta eitzel Har Sinai?
What special relevance does the mitzva of Shmitta have that it should be specially noted that it was given on Har Sinai?! All the mitzvot were given on Har Sinai, so what is the highlighting of Shmitta coming to teach us?
The Toras Kohanim answers that this parsha of Shmitta becomes the template to demonstrate other mitzvot. The generalities of mitzvot, and the details of mitzvot, were both given at the same time on Har Sinai. For example with Shmittah, the generality exists in Parshat Mishpatim (22:10-11), and Parshat B’har then goes into the details of Shmitta. Both were given at Har Sinai, to show the importance of the macro and micro significance of the mitzvot. Shmitta is the opportunity to teach us this lesson.
But this concept doesn’t really answer why it was Shmitta of all mitzvot that was chosen as the template. The answer given isn’t about any specific aspects of Shmitta, per se, so why Shmitta of all mitzvot?
A few characteristics and lessons learned from Shmitta that may help answer:
1. Loyalty and adherence over time to the specific rules that direct us toward a general idea or goal :
The concept of Shmitta is a very logical one. Unlike a mitzvah such as Parah Aduma, for example, the reasoning of Shmitta is readily perceptible both agriculturally and socially: It makes sense to give nature a year to replenish itself; to rest the land and allow it to restore itself. Similarly, we can understand the general concept of taking a year to allow those less fortunate to gather food from the fields of those with more to give, thereby restoring some equilibrium to the distribution of wealth among the nation.
Specifically because the general goals of Shmitta are so obvious, the technical rules can be vulnerable to being overlooked or altered. Over time, we may want to get around the rules in order to serve the greater agenda. For example, modern, technological advances have changed some of the limitations on land. One could make the argument that we should alter some of the Shmitta laws; maybe not plant in the seventh year, but fertilize or use bio-engineering or other modern methods of land replenishment. Maybe we should work that seventh year so we can give more to poor people, etc.
It is tempting to get caught up in generalities if they logically make sense, and we might be tempted to make that logical agenda easier to achieve by changing the details.
(Another example Rav Taragin discusses is Shabbos. We can understand the concept of taking a day to spend with family, community. Certain sects within Judaism, however, have taken the position that we should alter things on Shabbos to “enhance” our experience; allowing music so we can enhance our experience of services, or permitting driving so more people can come to synagogue, etc.)
Shmitta teaches strict adherence to details, even when times change. That is Har Sinai. Mitzvot come from Hashem and they are enduring and everlasting. As a general rule, (without the proper Rabbinic authority) we cannot shy away from or alter details to serve a larger purpose.
2. Challenge of delving into the laws of a mitzvah that arises quickly or infrequently:
Shmitta and Yovel only occur once every 7 and 50 years, respectively. It is much easier to immerse ourselves in the study of other mitzvot, which occur or demand our attention more frequently. Teffilin – which are required 6 out of every 7 days – or Shabbos – which occurs once a week – have a greater likelihood of holding our interest and attention.
The challenge of Shmitta is to get us to delve into the laws of something that isn’t necessarily relevant on a daily or weekly basis. It teaches us that the infrequently-occurring laws are just as important as other, more ubiquitous laws dictated to us at Har Sinai.
3. Challenge of delving into the laws of mitzvot that are not immediately performable/achievable:
The Gemara in Keddushin says that 61 years passed from time Bnei Yisrael learned the laws of Shmitta until the time they observed their first Shmittta year. When Bnei Yisrael learned about Shmitta on Har Sinai, they thought they were immediately going into the land, but unfortunately the Meraglim episode delayed entry by 40 years. Nevertheless, they were still expected to maintain the same level of intensity and interest, not only in generalities of Shmitta concepts, but also on a granular level.
We learn Torah – all parts of it – because it is the word of Hashem, not necessarily to implement immediately. We learn about service in the Beis HaMikdash, for example, even though as of this moment we do not have one. Torah is Torah regardless of its potential for immediate application. It is timeless and eternally critical, simply because it is the word of Hashem.
At Sinai, the Jews received all aspects of Torah, including those they would not utilize right away. Despite lacking immediate practical significance, these laws with deferred application, are a part of one complete Torah that was received at Har Sinai.
Finally, the Brisker Rov (Chiddushei HaGriz) explains that mastering the laws of Shmitta is extremely difficult. Its laws are intricate and, on the surface, boring to the casual reader. Ma’amad Har Sinai, by contrast, was full of excitement. The drama and flair of the receiving of the Torah can garner far more interest and demand for elaboration. The bright lights, the “kolos u’vrakim…v’kol shofar” of Ma’amad Har Sinai should be studied with the same care and excitement as the precision we place on Halachic matters. Although some sections of Torah may sometimes seem like high-level bullet points, and other sections like a detailed tax code, l’havdil, it is one Torah, and the excitement and intensity we put forth, should be uniform throughout our study of the Torah’s component parts.